I’m going to break down every position on our roster over the next two weeks, assess strengths and weaknesses, and talk about what the sum total talent looks like for 2011 and beyond.
Let's start with one of the highest potential betas on the team - the DEs.
This is an inexperienced, but talented group. I expect to see three de facto starters with 130 snaps a game split three ways and one situational contributor.
Let’s talk about those three first:
Alex Okafor held his own inside last year at 265 pounds after bring pressed into service by virtue of bad luck, injury, and a freshman DT class weaned on Popeye’s and lardcakes. The Pflugerville utility man is back on the edge, it’s his natural position, and his time at DT made him a tougher player. He'll certainly laugh at any TE that tries to bully him. He’s long (6'4.5 with a basketball wingspan), plays the run well with low pads and surprising strength, and though he lacks burst around the edge, he can create production with persistent grinding and batted balls. He’ll be stout squeezing the edge and we should be able to mix him in odd fronts inside the tackle with minimal worry. He’s an intelligent football player and a good citizen who will do the dirty work.
Jackson Jeffcoat has elite skills imbued by the tutelage of his father, Jim - the smartest, most calculating pass rusher in NFL history. Jackson got Dad’s smarts in a more athletic body. All of Jeffcoat’s physical attributes are pretty good: first step, lateral quickness, frame (6'4.5, 255), strength, but he truly separates himself with skill - specifically his hand placement and understanding of how to attack a blocker. He'd probably be a pretty good mid-major basketball player right now if that's the route he'd chosen. Before his injury, a true freshman Jeffcoat had moments of real dominance. The high ankle sprain rendered him more or less worthless - at 18, he didn't have the man-strength to compensate once he lost his base and energy. A breakout sophomore campaign isn’t an unreasonable expectation.
Sophomore Reggie Wilson continues the Longhorn’s beloved West African connection and in many respects he’s the most physically blessed DE on our roster. He’s still learning the position (and football in general) and that will preclude him from starting, but it won’t stop him from seeing heavy snaps. Wilson isn’t as long as Jeffcoat or Okafor (6-2.5, 250), so he’ll have to learn how to negotiate 6-4 to 6-7 OTs knowing that his hands won’t be making first contact. A Dwight Freeney bull rush paired with a good spin move is just what the doctor ordered. Some players hurt you when they hit you. Reggie is one of them. His upside is very high.
Let’s talk depth:
Dravannti Johnson is listed as a LB, but he’s really not. He’s an edge player, irrespective of labels. Johnson goes about 6-2 240 and though that’s undersized in the 4th quarter against Alabama, he’s certainly capable of contributing situationally in the Big 12. He hasn’t found his niche and is a bit of tweener, but he’s not without talent. He’s strong as hell, but he’s always struck me as more fast than quick and I prefer the opposite. Diaz will play him situationally and in odd fronts.
Chris Whaley is finally playing the position that I predicted for him since his junior year in high school and the degree to which he Meltons (to Melton is to blossom at your real position after years of fighting Nature) will be determined by his attitude. Whaley has good size and he’s skilled. He has fantastic hands and he’s coordinated. He also has short arms (bad for any edge player) and he’s gotten less athletic every year since he was 15. Is he a Chinese gymnast? Did he experience menarche and it all went downhill from there? A 6-2 255 pound athlete with the skills to play RB should be an asset somewhere, but anything from future DT, DE, transfer, to wearing ribbons of shame in a Whataburger parking lot are all equally likely.
Freshman Cedric Reed may play immediately if he can stake claim to fourth DE or we experience an injury. That’s a pity because Reed needs strength and technique and I’d like a redshirt year. He has a long frame (6-5, 240) but like many East Texas kids he needs meals and some weight room time. We seem theologically opposed to redshirts at times. And we wonder why we seem young every year?
Addendum: Kendall Thompson may play DE. I don't expect him to impact 2011.
This is a talented, unproven group. The elder statesman is a junior and four of the six are underclassmen. Not many skins on the wall. I’m optimistic about their chances to be a good unit, particularly given Diaz’s proclivity for bringing inside pressure - a DE only needs to play his assignment to stumble into a flush sack - but these guys aren't yet what they will be.
Two things unique to this group will be the length of Jeffcoat and Okafor on the edge (both tall with wingspan and hoops background), which should mean batted balls and obstructed sight lines, and high IQ in our three best players. That can only help Diaz when he goes mad scientist with different zone blitz packages and I expect us to play the screen and draw game well once we get some reps under our belt.
These guys should be pretty good against the run and though there's no dominant rusher to be accounted for, Diaz's scheme rewards team pressure and soundness.
Injuries would be particularly devastating here. Expect a solid 2011 and a great 2012.